A Nation Still at Risk

Published April 1, 2003

This month marks the 20th anniversary of the publication of one federal report that did not end up on a shelf gathering dust, but instead inspired significantly increased spending on public education, although this ultimately produced little progress in student achievement. That report was A Nation at Risk, the product of a bipartisan National Commission on Excellence in Education, appointed by then Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell.

The Commission’s 18 members included public school administrators, the 1981-82 National Teacher of the Year, the President of Yale University, a Nobel Laureate, a former governor, and the retired chairman of Bell Labs, among others. The Commission’s work was largely praised by President Ronald Reagan as well as other political leaders and educators.

The report included two of the most famous statements ever made about the nation’s public schools, that we were facing “a rising tide of mediocrity,”and “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

The commissioners did not merely sit around a table and draw their own conclusions. To the contrary, they funded some 40 studies on different aspects of education, held public hearings, conducted panel discussions, and solicited opinions on reform.

But, as Education Policy Institute Chairman Myron Lieberman has pointed out, the commissioners ignored the role of teacher unions and collective bargaining, a major–and some might say fatal–omission. And, as the distinguished educator Mario D. Fantini wrote shortly thereafter, their recommendations largely consisted of doing “more of what we already have–more of what has already caused the problem in the first place.”

Startling Findings

Nonetheless, the report’s specific findings were startling enough. For example:

  • “… on 19 academic tests American students were never first or second and, in comparison with other industrialized nations, were last seven times.”
  • “Average achievement of high school students on most standardized tests is lower than 26 years ago …”
  • “The College Board’s Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SAT) demonstrate a virtually unbroken decline from 1963 to 1980.”
  • “Many 17-year-olds do not possess the ‘higher order’ intellectual skills we should expect of them. Nearly 40 percent cannot draw inferences from written material; only one-fifth can write a persuasive essay; and only one-third can solve a mathematics problem requiring several steps.”

No Surprise

Though disturbing, the Commission’s findings should not have come as a surprise. The report was only the latest in a long dreary history of such studies. New World Foundation President Colin Greer had written in 1969, “In virtually every study undertaken since that of Chicago schools made in 1898, more children have failed in school than have succeeded, both in absolute and in relative numbers.”

A Nation at Risk wasn’t even the only such study in 1983. At least five other national reports published that year also found problems with basic education and made recommendations. They came from very prestigious groups: an Education Commission of the States task force, the College Board, a Twentieth Century Fund task force, the Business-Higher Education Forum, and the National Science Board.

Within the next dozen years or so, at least 150 more major reports proposed almost as many different reforms based on as many analyses of the public schools and their problems. As Stephen Arons wrote in 1997, “Reading and analyzing the patterns in these reports can become a terminal preoccupation.”

More Testing, More Spending

The 1983 report, though, did prompt action as well as generate more reports. For example, A Nation at Risk gave further impetus to a movement begun in the 1970s that, by 1993, resulted in 47 states adopting some type of statewide testing program.

It also prompted more spending on education–much, much more spending–the favorite solution of the public school establishment for school problems and a solution largely accepted by the general public and many elected officials. Public educators who praised the report saw they could use it to strengthen their financial pleas. They said in effect, as Blueprint magazine’s executive editor Tom Mirga has written, give us more money and we will give you better results.

They got the money, but none of the promised gains was achieved.

In the next 15 years, teacher salaries were raised, student-teacher ratios and class sizes were reduced, new facilities were built, and annual spending per pupil, adjusted for inflation, grew by roughly 40 percent, from about $4,700 per school year to $6,600. Total annual expenditures in constant dollars grew nearly 60 percent, from some $180 billion to $280 billion.

Little Progress

The lack of progress was evident 11 years later, when Congress reported the following in the Goals 2000: Educate America Act:

  • “The rate of decline in our urban schools is escalating at a rapid pace. Student performance in most inner city schools grows worse each year. At least half of all students entering ninth grade fail to graduate 4 years later and many more students from high-poverty backgrounds leave school with skills that are inadequate for today’s workplace …”
  • “An educational emergency exists in those urban and rural areas where there are large concentrations of children who live in poverty.”
  • “Many elementary and secondary schools in the United States … are unsuccessful in equipping all students with the knowledge and skills needed to succeed as citizens and in the working world.”

None of the eight education goals for the year 2000 was achieved and Congress shut down the national goals panel two years later. There was little or nothing to show for almost 20 years of increased effort and expenditures following A Nation at Risk.

“If a public institution cannot be reformed in 15 years … it is fair to conclude that it can’t be reformed at all,” suggested Mirga.

Writing only a couple of years after A Nation at Risk, Fantini had predicted the gains would be meager. He said the charge of mediocrity should be regarded as an indictment of the system and not of those working within it.

“If the system were restructured to contain a greater degree of built-in flexibility, the varied and individual capabilities of teachers could be more fully utilized,” he noted. However, resistance by those inside the system to opening it up has been so powerful that flexibility has been slow in coming. Ironically, resistance has come primarily from teachers themselves.

After 20 Years

Twenty years after publication of A Nation at Risk, what should have increased–such as achievement and graduation rates–has not, and what should not have increased–such as dropout rates, violence, and functional illiteracy–has.

Expenditures now approach $400 billion a year, and total perhaps as much as five trillion dollars during the past 20 years. Total funding, student-teacher ratios, class sizes, teacher salaries, and additional support staff are better than they have ever been. At the same time, the public school establishment complains more than ever about alleged inadequacies.

David Kirkpatrick is a senior fellow for education with the U.S. Freedom Foundation in Washington, DC. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

The April 1983 report from the U.S. Department of Education, “A Nation At Risk: The Imperative For Educational Reform,” is available online at http://www.ed.gov/pubs/NatAtRisk/